011 | Luke McGee | Will Brexit ever end?

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

Now the EU and UK have less than two months to agree a free trade deal or face a cliff edge. And then, are we done?

I caught up with CNN journalist Luke McGee, who’s roamed the halls of power in Brussels and Westminster for years now, to understand what got us to this point and where we go from here. Did the British people ever feel European? Probably never as much as others. But ironically, now they’re separating, the UK might have to more than ever keep an eye on what happens on the continent.

Music by Dyalla.


Transcripts are published for your convenience, but they are automated and not always cleaned up. Please excuses typos and occasional nonsense, and always check the audio before quoting.

Luke McGee: [00:00:00] The UK's version of the Brexit story was always in some respects a domestic political story.


[00:00:15] Isabelle Roughol: [00:00:15] Hi, I'm Isabelle Roughol and this is Borderline.

[00:00:20] Remember Brexit? Not that long ago, at least for those of us living here in the UK, it felt like the most momentous story of the decade. Right now? Not so much. And yet we're less than two months away from a potential cliff edge.

[00:00:33] The UK has left a European Union, that was concluded on January 31st after several delays. The withdrawal agreement includes some reassurance for Europeans settled in the UK, like myself or vice versa, British people in Europe. But let me tell you, that ball of tread is always there in the pit of your stomach.

[00:00:52] All that's left and it's no small thing is to agree a free trade deal to ensure that the regular flow of goods, people, data, financial transactions, and more between the EU and the UK is not interrupted, not least on the land border across Ireland. The deadline is December 31st. Another thing for 2020.

[00:01:11]You're excused if you haven't kept up with Brexit these last few months, I know I haven't. So I called up Luke McGee, a journalist at CNN in London who's been covering Brexit for years now, roaming the halls of power in Westminster and Brussels through false starts and missed deadlines.

[00:01:26] One thing that's always struck me having a foot on each side of the channel is how the story is a matter of diplomacy on the continent, but very much of domestic politics here in Britain. And that's something Luke and I got to discuss.

Interview [00:01:38]

[00:01:38]  you for, for coming on and, um, yeah, for helping me understand, um, what the heck is going on. There was up to a point where I was kind of trying to follow every day or every week and keep up. And at some point, I don't know when exactly, but I just kind of gave up on understanding Brexit.

[00:02:01]Luke McGee: [00:02:01] I think to some extent that's actually been a wise decision. If you look at what the differences are now, you know, between the two sides, really, they haven't changed that much in months. That might actually be a good place to start. Just the fact that they haven't really moved that much.  if you tuned out in the beginning of spring, the end of winter, um, you probably haven't really missed that much.

[00:02:26] The fundamental issues between the two sides are still really the same three things. There's this dispute over the level playing field, which the EU has said from very early on it wants if the UK is going to have access to the EU's massive, massive single market. So that's a level playing field and workers' rights, regulations...

[00:02:45] Increasingly the state aid issue, which is just turned into one of the nastiest, nastiest arguments and all of this. Um, Fishing, still a big issue. The UK wants to sell fish into the EU market. The EU wants unrestricted fishing in return.  It's the great mysteries of Brexit is the fact that the fishing industries of both the UK and France, these things that make up a tiny percentage, not even, not even a percent of GDP, have become um, these huge grounds of contention.

[00:03:11]And then the third issue is this idea of the governance of any deal, the involvement of the ECJ, which is just an absolute red line for so many Brexiteers. But you know, when we have joint agreements, the idea that there won't be some involvement in any kind of arbitration is to me, just seems unrealistic.

[00:03:29] But you know,  those are still the three areas. Those are still the three things that need bridging if there's going to be at least a formal deal on trade. um, There might be compromise, but you know, things haven't really moved that much.

[00:03:40]Isabelle Roughol: [00:03:40] Is it just like, I mean, "just", Covid that has kinda distracted everyone , or is it  that people are just digging in and refusing to budge?

[00:03:49] Luke McGee: [00:03:49] I think there's a few things going on there. I think from the UK side,  people certainly in government have kind of admitted that there was so much capacity going into COVID and the response. You got to remember that it wasn't that long ago that we were being called the covid capital of Europe and, uh, and you know, we had the most deaths . It was a real big mess and, you know, even the prime minister himself was in intensive care. So there was certainly not much bandwidth for Brexit. I mean, there have been improvements, negotiations have moved along a bit and there's constructive talks, but those three issues haven't been bridged. And I personally can't see how they're bridged at anything other than a political level, rather than between the negotiators.

[00:04:28] On the EU side, COVID has fundamentally changed their thinking.  If you remember the  1.8 trillion, um, covid fund that was pulled off, it was this huge agreement between the 27 and it was a big success in their eyes. Relative to that, Brexit suddenly just seemed like a so smaller issue.  It does put things into perspective I think for Europeans.

[00:04:49] Isabelle Roughol: [00:04:49] Yeah. And you wrote about that actually that, um, Europe has kind of moved on from Brexit.  Following media and following the conversation on, on both sides of the border, I found it really striking that it's just become increasingly strident on, on the UK side and very much a, uh, a big domestic political issue here in the UK while it gets really, really quiet on the continent.

[00:05:14]Luke McGee: [00:05:14] The UK's version of the Brexit story was always in some respects a domestic political story. If you sort of compare the way,  when the UK was a member state, the way that the EU was talked about in this country compared to, you know, say Ireland or France or Germany,  they knew what the EU was doing a lot more. We were never, as a country, I think, as into it.

[00:05:35] I think this goes for even the most ardent remainers.  I don't think they were ever really as pro European, as Europeans are in other EU countries. So I think to some extent it's always been a bit of an, um, uh, sort of domestic insular story.

[00:05:50] I think what's happened now is it's been such a long time since the vote. And The stories to emerge about it are still sort of negotiating with Brussels over these tiny things...  if you voted to leave or even if you voted to remain, you just want it over, you know. It becomes so frustrating that there is political capital in then being strident on the UK side  and blaming Brussels for um, their inability to move.

[00:06:17]Which is kind of interesting because when you speak to actual negotiators, people at government level, they really don't talk like that. They do talk about constructive talks with partners and wanting a deal and all this sort of stuff.

[00:06:28] Isabelle Roughol: [00:06:28] Yeah, there's, there's more bravado to the public than there is probably in the hallways.

[00:06:34]Luke McGee: [00:06:34] That cuts both ways actually, I should just say.   You speak to a lot of people in Brussels and  it's not that they don't want to deal. It's that I think over here, we've not really factored in how it's just not even in their top 10 list of things to sort out, you know, and the political loss of conceding to the UK,  it's just not seen as that big a deal. The EU's position has always been the EU's position. And I think as time's gone on, you know, it's a matter of fact, that the default position has become no deal and it's become harder to reach a deal.

[00:07:07] So they kinda can leave with no deal and I think that's something that gets missed out here. I think, There's always been this sort of strange idea over here that it will be the EU that blinks...   it's a funny thing, but it does cut both ways.

[00:07:20]Isabelle Roughol: [00:07:20] um, you hit on something earlier that I think is something that definitely on the EU side, um, people, at least citizens, don't understand. When I was living in France on the continent, I always thought of the UK as being part of Europe.

[00:07:34] Luke McGee: [00:07:34] Right, yeah.

[00:07:35]Isabelle Roughol: [00:07:35] It was just a given. And then, and then I moved to the UK and I realized, no, they're not. In their heads, they're not. They talk about going on holiday "to Europe" when they mean "the continent." Like they are not part of it. And that's something that really struck me because I never, I never saw England or the UK that way from the other side.

[00:07:53] Luke McGee: [00:07:53] . in a weird way it took Brexit for us to really engage with what the EU was. I'm not entirely convinced that everyone does now, but you know, I think in some weird way it took Brexit for us to realize what it was that we were a member of. So yeah, it's been a very strange four years in that respect.

[00:08:13] You know, people never used the term single markets and customs union in political arguments before, you know. It's kind of ludicrous to think that that would be something that would come up before and, you know, a campaigning issue would be on are we're going to reform the single, you know, just, it wouldn't happen, but it does happen in other European countries.

[00:08:31]Um, So, yeah, I think, I think, I think that's right. Um, and it's interesting to hear you say that from France obviously, other than Ireland, being the country closest to the UK.

[00:08:41] Isabelle Roughol: [00:08:41] Well, it does, it does go both ways in that I think seeing the UK  deciding to leave has made a lot of Europeans think about, you know, would we want to leave? And, and the answer has been a pretty resounding no. Even places that had been thinking about it kind of backed off the idea of looking at how it's happening for the UK, but I think it has made everyone think, why are we in this? Um, actually, so it's been interesting.

[00:09:04] Luke McGee: [00:09:04] I don't know if you saw the European social survey, um, from this year .  it showed that, you know, pretty much across the block, everyone favored EU membership, to some extent more integration. Um, it found for countries like Norway and Switzerland, who are not in the block but had  a relationship with them, that though they didn't  want to join, they were happy with the deal basically that they have at the moment. Um, And interestingly it was a, it was the UK that was 56.8% of respondents  indicated they would vote to remain inside the block.

[00:09:35] Isabelle Roughol: [00:09:35] Too late.

[00:09:37] Luke McGee: [00:09:37] Well, I mean, although I always say take those things with a pinch of salt because, um, if the question is, "would you vote to remain in the EU?" That's a different question to, "after the last four years political turmoil, would you now vote in a referendum to join the EU?" You know, I think they're fundamentally quite different, different questions.

[00:09:55] Isabelle Roughol: [00:09:55] And actually, um, that's interesting. Cause I think Brexit in 2016 didn't mean the same thing that  Brexit does now. And it just feels like it's gone much more hard line and intransigent, than it sounded to begin with.

[00:10:10] Luke McGee: [00:10:10] Yeah. I mean, I think you can trace that really back  to when Theresa May won the Tory leadership contest in 2016. Because she campaigned for Remain , she was a remainer and in the Tory leadership contest, really everyone thought Boris was going to win. Then as you know, Michael Gove basically betrayed him. And everyone then fell away, and Andrea Ledsome fell away who was the only other brexiteer. May won it without a vote, you know, without, without a final vote, at least.

[00:10:39] And what that kind of meant was you had someone who'd backed remain, the party were kind of happy with because she was always seen as quite a Brexity Remainer. But she sort of had to prove herself and she was the first person to say "no single market, no customs union." No Brexiteer had ever drawn those lines before.

[00:10:57]  I slightly glibly always say it's like, the born again people who come to religion, you know, tend to be the most devout. And I've always thought she was a bit of a born again Brexiteer who suddenly decided she had to take an incredibly hard line approach.

[00:11:11] And what that did was toss some red meat to the Brexiteers who went, Oh, well, this sounds, it sounds very great. You know, this sounds very hard. I think most of them at the time sort of thought that what would probably happen is there would just be some kind of "okay, we'll leave. It will look a bit like Norway. Um, And, you know, we kind of won the victory and now we just get on with it."

[00:11:31] And then all of a sudden these new political arguments were opened up over, you know, hard Brexit, soft Brexit. I mean, no one really knew what any of those things meant, but, um, you know, I think you can trace all of that really back to Theresa May,  sort of trying to really prove that she was a Brexiteer.

Patreon break [00:11:46]

[00:11:46]  Isabelle Roughol: [00:11:47] Don't go anywhere. It's ugly, but I gotta talk to you about money for a minute.


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[00:12:49] Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. Now back to Luke.


Interview resumes

[00:12:53] So I want to talk a bit about what's going today or this week, this month, um, we saw the EU commission launching legal proceedings against the UK, which I guess is never a good sign, uh, in a divorce when you get the lawyers involved. Um, Can you explain kind of what that's about and  why is the EU looking to sue the UK essentially?

[00:13:15] Luke McGee: [00:13:15] Yeah. I mean, I would just say that they are technically legal proceedings, but infringement procedures, you know, they're pretty much, for those  who follow EU politics, you know, it's pretty much the most EU slap on the wrist you can do.

[00:13:27] but at the core of it is this thing over the internal market bill. The internal market bill is something that the UK government simultaneously claims is simply there to protect, uh,  the trade between the UK internal market, the four nations of the United Kingdom, and  it can do it by overriding any international law.

[00:13:47] Now, of course, in international law, is a treaty the UK signed with the EU last year, which as part of its commitment to um, not having anything resembling a border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, uh, it means that there'll be no customs checks.

[00:14:01] Now this is all like incredibly technical stuff, but the short version of it is that it could in theory, create a situation where customs checks are required  between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. And that would breach an international treaty. It would breach the good Friday agreement. And as Brandon Lewis said in the house of commons, it would  --"in a very limited and time specific way" I think was the exact quote --  breach international law. So the EU, which is essentially just  a series of rules and  legal-based institutions and legal frameworks said, "well, hang on a minute."

[00:14:35]Um, so   it is a big row. It is a big deal. Um, but  the UK's position -- and I think this is a sincerely held position -- is it never wants to use it. Whether it's a bit of theater that's supposed to kind of get the EU  moving on certain stuff, you know, there are a lot of theories going around and to be perfectly honest, No one really knows what's going on in the head of people  at Downing street.

[00:14:56] in some respects, I think the most damaging thing that's come out of it has been actually the condemnation from people most notably, um, in America saying that if the UK breaches these international obligations, then it can absolutely wave goodbye to a trade deal with the U S. I mean, we can, we can talk about the merits of trade deals with the U S as much as you like, but,  certainly for people who campaigned to leave, there was a big, big part of it was we'll be able to sign trade deals. And if the world's biggest economy says, well, not if you're doing  this, in terms of the political optics, that is a big loss. Um,

[00:15:29]So yeah, it's a big deal that I sort of, I sort of think there's a good chance it will never come to light, but it is a big deal.

[00:15:37] Isabelle Roughol: [00:15:37] So you mentioned, we're quite close to the finish line.  What are the deadlines that we're working to right now?  uh, I know there's a EU summit next week. What's at stake there?

[00:15:49] Luke McGee: [00:15:49] Boris Johnson said he wants a deal kind of ready for then . there is going to be a ratification process. You know, when you do anything with the EU, these things need to be translated into a load of different languages, they need lawyers to go through them, they need to be ratified  in different parliaments, in different countries. And so there is a bit of time. The difference, I suppose, is that with this one, the EU's been so kind of united on its position once it's decided on Brexit that it could happen very quickly.

[00:16:18]I mean, the real deadline is obviously December the 31st. If nothing's in place at that point, then we have a cliff edge.

[00:16:24]I'm frankly amazed we haven't had a walkaway yet. I thought that there would be by this point. Um, but they're still going.  there's a lot at stake, obviously.

[00:16:31]We know that if there's no deal, it's going to be very, very difficult. It's going to be chaotic. the longer we leave it, the less time we have to prepare, but things like stockpiling.

[00:16:44] I think certainly on the economic side of it, lots of people, lots of businesses would breathe an enormous sigh of relief if out of October the 15th, they said, "right, we've got a compromise, here it is."

[00:16:51] Even if that deal is very thin, which it will be because the UK government does not want a particularly comprehensive trade deal with the EU. It's the only trade deal in history that I can think of that is working towards reducing trade with your trading partner. So it's quite an odd thing that they're negotiating anyway.

[00:17:09] I think most people's ambition for what will actually come out of it is pretty slim, but I think they just want to know. Certainty is really the most important thing. And if there's something agreed, then that would be very good. Whether the politics of it allow for that is a completely different question. And really it has been politics that's driven this whole process.

[00:17:31] Isabelle Roughol: [00:17:31] And uncertainty has been the thing that's been kind of plaguing us for years now, for businesses, for um, residents like myself, um, certainly.  You touched on something , which is the idea that if any deal comes through, it would probably be a pretty thin deal. And that's something you and I discussed before, but the idea that, you know, at the last minute, people could sing "hurrah, we have a deal," and that's going to make us forget to look at the content of the deal, which may not be all that great.

[00:18:01]Luke McGee: [00:18:01] so initially in the political declaration, it said, what we're going to seek is a, is a tariff-free, quota-free, free trade deal. And that has changed , from the UK's perspective, to, you know, "well, maybe we'll be happy with tariffs on 1 or 2% of goods.""

[00:18:17] Now that doesn't sound like much, but you know, if you for one, , one to 2%, the goods that are traded between the UK and the EU... I mean, frankly, people on, certainly on the Eu's negotiating team, think there is not time to do that in the time we have left.  I can't even comprehend how many hours of work would have to go into that.

[00:18:36] So it is going to be a thin deal. Whatever's agreed is going to be a very thin deal. Um, There is going to be disruption. Michael Gove has accepted this , it is not going to be  seamless trade, even with a deal. And it probably will be okay, but not, it is going to be a reduction in trade  with the biggest trading partner. That is just what the government is negotiating for and that is its objective.

[00:18:59]Isabelle Roughol: [00:18:59] so the final scenario, and you can tell me, which of this you, you think is more likely, is no deal and hitting that cliff edge. Can you paint a picture of what that might look?

[00:19:12] Luke McGee: [00:19:12] If all reports are to be believed, you know, it will be queues of lorries going out to the border. It will be food shortages. It will be medicine shortages. It will be the potential for goods to be increased.  this has been painted out  by economists and by people far cleverer than I have many, many times, you know?

[00:19:29] reality always has a way of slightly surprising you and things seldom  happen overnight, but these are the real implications of what's happening. we've seen this week with the UK testing numbers, computer systems often don't work, you know, so, and the scale of what we're trying to do, um, will be enormous.

[00:19:48]The government's worst case scenarios, they might seem sort of dramatic, but  at some point, these are sort of hard numbers going into hard changes in law, and there are real life consequences to that.

[00:19:59] I would say that if no deal happens, it will be by accident rather than by design. I sincerely believe both sides want a deal. I think the danger is --  and it goes both ways actually, but with the best will in the world, I think it has been more on the UK side than the EU side -- I think there's been a miscalculation over how important a deal has been for the EU, um, for a long time now. Um,

[00:20:24] I think as we talked about at the top, there has been a real kind of sense of this being an insular thing for the UK. Um,  you talk to, officials or diplomats in Brussels and they don't get us at all anymore. They don't get what the UK wants. It's the sense of frustration, from the  negotiation of the withdrawal agreement to the trade deal , to um, accusations that the British government hasn't put down proposals , which they refute actually and I know that they have, and there has been some politics played by the EU on this,  they're certainly not blameless, but...

[00:20:56] Blameless is actually a good place to possibly end this. The UK thinks there's merit in starting a blame game, the EU doesn't care. they have so little time for it because ultimately if you're a citizen  , in Romania or something and the UK's having a weird spat about fish with the EU, you don't care about that. It's completely remote and alien.

[00:21:18] So I think there's been a miscalculation on the UK side, in, in many areas. I mean, that said, I think the EU has not always behaved entirely brilliantly and I think there has been a lot of politics played, especially   in the last round, when it was Jean Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk. Tusk was famously a bit trolley on the internet sometimes.  but that said, I think that it will be out of accident we end up with no deal, it's certainly not either side's intention.

[00:21:48] Isabelle Roughol: [00:21:48] Well, then I think blaming the EU for being too hard line in a way, um, that's never going to work with um, EU citizens because they're like, well, we should be. Um, and I think there's definitely a premium to appear tough, to deter anyone else wanting to leave the block and  to show their citizens that they've got their interest at heart.

[00:22:08] No one in Europe is interested in being nice to the UK right now.

[00:22:13]Luke McGee: [00:22:13] it's a bit like sort of complaining that Man City have bought a hundred million pounds striker, and that he scored a goal against a championship team in a, in a cup tie, you know .

[00:22:25] From the EU side, they are the bigger partner: well, we're acting in our own interests and we have a bigger internal market. That is frankly their view and to be honest, it's a legitimate view. You know, Michelle Barnier's job hasn't been to act in the interests of British citizens.

[00:22:38]Um, in terms of the blame stuff, I just find the framing of it very, very odd.  If you blame Brussels for no deal while simultaneously saying the central claim is we're happy and more than prepared as Boris Johnson said at the weekend. Well then if something goes wrong, the only thing that can be responsible for that is your lack of preparedness.

[00:22:59]maybe it will play well with the British press. certainly the cause for Brexit, it has its allies in the British media and certainly among the British people, you know, they did vote to leave and Boris Johnson won a majority. I'm just not sure how sensible all of this blame game stuff is.

[00:23:16] Isabelle Roughol: [00:23:16] Huhum. So it's been a bit of a Groundhog day for you since 2016 I guess, you've been covering this over and over and over again. Um, do you get to cover something else next year? You think we're done with this?

[00:23:31]Luke McGee: [00:23:31] I think there's going to be some problems with the implementation of any deal. I think basically we're not going to be able to just sort of turn our backs on it. I think we'll talk less about the process of Brexit. I think sort of ironically, I think, um, having the EU on your doorstep, you know, and in the case  of, on the island of Ireland, literally sharing a border with you in a weird way, um, the UK out of the EU probably needs to know more about what's going on in the EU, because it is this massive thing right next to you. So every decision the EU makes, well in some way affect the UK, you know, because  we can leave the EU, but we can't, we can't float towards America, you know?

[00:24:11]one of the great ironies of EU membership is you don't have to think about it that much, whereas leaving, you have to know what's going on a bit more with it. I think we'll certainly think about it  in a different way. I can't see that people who've, um,  come to understand how all this stuff works would be short of work.

[00:24:27]Isabelle Roughol: [00:24:27] Well, I hope you get to do a different story every once in a while. Um, Thank you so much for, for helping me understand all this. It has been really helpful.

[00:24:34] Luke McGee: [00:24:34] Oh, I hope I have. I mean, as I say, the groundhog day gets to me sometimes, so I've appreciated the invitation. It's been nice to talk.

[00:24:43] Isabelle Roughol: [00:24:43] Yeah. Great to talk. Thank you so much.

[00:24:46] Luke McGee: [00:24:46] Thanks.

[00:24:46]Isabelle Roughol: [00:24:46]  And there it is, like in a divorce, two parties never quite understanding the other yet who'll still have to make room in their lives for them because in the middle of the confused kids. That's me and others like me

[00:25:00]In the 48 hours since Luke and I talked, there were first hopeful leaks that a deal might be closer than we thought, then minutes ago on Wednesday night, the UK's chief negotiator said that a deal was still "some way off" though the door "would never be closed" to a deal, even past Boris Johnson self-imposed deadline on October 15.

[00:25:19]Meanwhile Ireland's foreign minister said that before moving forward, the EU would need quote, "a very clear signal" that the UK is quote, "willing to show some flexibility and realism."

[00:25:31] Thanks to Luke McGee for helping clarify things for us. As always, please share the pod with your friends, rate and review on Apple podcasts. That really helps.

[00:25:40] I'm receiving super kind messages from people listening and loving borderline. And that really means a lot and keeps me going. If you can please consider supporting me on Patreon to help me make  orderline and pay the bills. Borderline is entirely produced, recorded, edited by me.

[00:25:56] No new members this week so I'm going to shout out the brilliant people I already have, because your support means so much. Ana, Monica, Jacqueline, Patty, Edward, Trafford, thank you so much.

[00:26:06] Look for borderline on Patreon or as always find everything that you need, including transcripts for every episode at borderlinepod.com.

[00:26:14] This week on La V.F., my French podcast. I started a series explaining the unusual logistics of the U S presidential election and how that might impact results. So if you speak French, check that out again at borderlinepod.com.

[00:26:28] I'm your host, Isabelle Roughol. Borderline is a One Lane Bridge production. Music by Dyalla. Talk to you next week.

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Journalist, podcaster, media consultant. Telling stories & building better newsrooms. Writes The Lede. Ex- LinkedIn News, Le Figaro, The Cambodia Daily. 🎓 Mizzou '08, Birkbeck '25.